The Ark Of The Covenant: its description; its spiritual significance
After their flight from Egypt, the Hebrew people gathered at the foot of a set apart mountain on the Sinai Peninsula where they made the first Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark Of The Covenant Description
There, through the mediation of Mosheh, YAHWEH gave them a code of law. The text of these Ten Commandments was engraved on two stones called the Tables of the Law. These were put inside a little wooden chest to which the Scriptures give three names, each with a definite meaning: the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Testimony; and the Ark of YAHWEH.
The Ark of the Covenant: the Tables contained the text of Covenant, the contract between YAHWEH and the Twelve tribes whom HE had rescued from slavery in Egypt deigned to call HIS chosen people. YAHWEH would protect this company of shepherds, provided they obeyed the moral law engraved on the Tables of stone.
The Ark of the Covenant: this small chest, on account of the set apart tablets it contained, may be considered as the concrete testimony of the alliance between YAHWEH and Yisrael.
The Ark Of The Covenant Spiritual Significance
The Ark of the Covenant, also known as "The Ark of YAHWEH": it will be seen shortly how, in a sense and in special circumstances, the Ark may be considered as the throne of YAHWEH.
This chest, made from the wild acacia, one of the few trees occurring in the south of the almost isolated region of Sinai, was quite a small object: about four and a half feet long, two feet two inches wide and the same in height. It was lined both inside and out with fine gold leaf (Shemoth 25:10-22), and decorated on the outside with a gold molding. Its upper surface was open and was protected by a massive gold plate, above which there were two cherubs (Kerubim, the plural of Kerub) facing each other, with outstretched wings. The present condition of the text does not allow us to determine whether these cherubs were standing or kneeling. At the top of the chest, on the longest sides, two rings were fixed through which two gold-plated shafts were passed. These were used for transport.
The prototype of liturgical objects of this kind is to be found in some Egyptian buildings of the period. The Hebrews, encamped at the foot of Sinai, had just arrived there, by various stages, from the Nile Delta where they had been settled for some four centuries. They had thus had frequent opportunities of seeing magnificent Egyptian processions. In these processions it was traditional to carry a naos, a kind of chest with sacred images on its cover or inside.
From the detailed description given in Scripture, it cannot be doubted that the Ark was a copy of these sacred chests, of which archaeologists have found paintings and wooden models in Egyptian temples and tombs.
If the exact meaning of the Ark is to be understood, two further explanations are essential: one of them with regard to the cover; the other concerning the cherubs which formed the decorative feature of the upper part.
Attempted Reconstruction Of The Ark Of The Covenant
The set apart chest, made from acacia wood and covered with strips of thin gold inside and out, was quite small (4 1/2 feet long, 2 feet 2 inches wide, 2 feet 2 inches high). It was perfectly suited to the worship of a group of nomads who were obliged to move about on the plain as they needed to change from one pasture to another.
The two rods used for carrying it, although they were merely passed through rings, always remained in position (a further feature of nomad life: it was necessary to be in a position to move off to another camp without delay).
Inside the Ark of the Covenant were kept the Tables of the Law on which were inscribed on both sides the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue).
The massive golden cover -called the propitiatory -was surmounted by two Kerubim (cherubim) with outstretched wings. It was here on occasion -when YAHWEH had orders to give to HIS envoys -that the presence of the invisible YAHWEH was acknowledged.
The description in the Scripture does not enable us to say for certain whether the Kerubim were standing or kneeling. The sketches above show both forms. In any case, their wings were stretched out over the cover.
The cover: At first sight it might appear that the sole purpose of the Ark of the Covenant was to serve as a container of the Tables of the Law and as a means of transporting it. But in reality, these were secondary considerations. What gave it is truly spiritual significance was its cover, the kapporet usually translated unsatisfactorily by 'propitiatory'.
In reality, it meant two things: materially, it was a cover; and symbolically, 'that which covers sin; that which eliminates sin, that which shows YAHWEH as 'propitious' -hence propitiatory, mercy seat. This interpretation became normal after the Exile.
In Hebrew worship this plate of gold, placed within the wings of the cherubs, was taken to be the 'throne of YAHWEH'. For it was here that YAHWEH came when HE wanted to speak to Mosheh and later with Yahshua Ben Nun, and, in circumstances of exceptional gravity, with some of the high-kohens. He said to Mosheh: 'There I shall come to meet you; there, from above the throne of mercy, from between the two cherubs that are on the Ark of the testimony, I shall give you all MY commands for the sons Yisrael’ (Shemoth. 25:22). In the volume on Mosheh it was explained that these confrontations between YAHWEH and Mosheh, must have been, as most theologians agree, experiences of an interior nature. Thus, this plate of gold was regarded as YAHWEH's throne from which HE gave HIS instructions to HIS chosen ones.
It may seem strange that a material object, a plate of gold, should have played this part in so spiritual a belief. But we ought not to expect too much: the theological development of the Hebrews had, in this period in about 1000 B.C., still far to go. Monotheism only became really definite after the return from the Babylonian captivity, six centuries after Sinai, four centuries after the building of the Great Tabernacle. It is therefore understandable that believers should have wanted to see 'the place' where YAHWEH issued HIS commands. Since HE was essentially invisible, and since it was forbidden to attempt to make any graven image of HIM, the people revered the place where, when HE chose, YAHWEH spoke to HIS prophets.
ATTEMPTED RECONSTRUCTION OF AN EGYPTIAN ARK carried in procession by the kohens on the banks of the Nile Mosheh ordered the construction of the Ark of the Covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai when he and the Hebrew tribes arrived from the land of Egypt where the sons of Yacob had just spent about 400 years (1600-1200). The style of the Ark could not therefore help but be modeled in the Egyptian fashion; the Hebrew makers of this feat of carpentry had learnt their trade in the workshop of Egypt. Egyptologists have also discovered several carved figures, and even some chests used in ritual ceremonies, made of wood and curiously resembling the Ark described in the Scripture.
On Egyptian arks we quite often find the representation of a god. For the Yisraelites it seemed that YAHWEH should not be portrayed at all, being invisible by nature; the Decalogue is strict on this point. This proscription, however, by no means prevented the artist from carving two cherubim with outstretched wings in an attempt to "place" the throne of YAHWEH. Naturally these two figures, to any who followed YAHWEH, were completely devoid of any mythological significance.
To the Yisraelite, the cherubim held only symbolic value; they were seen above the Ark only to represent the presence and power of YAHWEH.
The cherubs: Above this kapporet, and at each end of it, there were two Kerubim, facing each other, their wings outspread. The empty space between their wings marked the spot where YAHWEH's presence dwelt.
This idea of a combined man and animal was expressed in various forms throughout the East at this period. It was a way of affirming belief in the existence of beings intermediary between the gods and men. These were the genii, the higher creatures, uniting human intelligence and animal strength. In Egypt, they took the form of a sphinx, with the face of a woman and the body of a cat or a ram. In Mesopotamia they became winged bulls (cherubs), having the face of a man with a long beard, curled and crisp, hieratic in appearance.
Ark of the Covenant in Solomon's Time
The craftsmen of Hiram I of Tyre, employed by Solomon in the decoration of the Great Tabernacle, naturally brought with them preparatory drawings that included the traditional themes of the Syro-Phoenician mythology of that period, especially that of the cherubs with human faces, bodies of men or four-footed animals, and huge protective wings. 20
In the ports of the Lebanon, and in Egypt and Mesopotamia, these impressive figures, at the entrance of temples or palaces, represented the presence of their guardians; their purpose was to ward off the enemies of the gods and men.
The cherubs of the Ark, however, had no such function. The Hebrews lacked artistic ability, and because of this, Solomon was obliged to make use of the products of the workshops of the Phoenician idolaters. Their importations were received with thanks, but transformed into mere ornament. The Hebrews, at least the most cultivated among them, took good care not to allow these alien images to become protective genii of the Ark. YAHWEH needed no such helpers. At best they were considered to be obscure, allegorical signs of the subjection of natural forces to the almighty power of the creative source of all things.
The Ark itself was never in any way an object of worship. In Egypt the naos, carried in procession by the priests, were normally crowned with the statue of a god. As he passed, the people bowed in adoration. Yisrael's attitude to the Ark was entirely different. It is true that until the return from Exile in 538, the Yahwist leaders had a hard struggle against popular tendencies to idolatry. Some sections of the people succumbed to the potent attractions of Canaanite practices. But at no time was the Ark ever officially deified. In Yahwist worship, with its clear sense of origins, it was natural enough.
But is it not true that there were occasions when the Ark itself was considered as endowed with supernatural power? For example, after the battle of Aphek, when it was captured by the Philistines, it produced terror in the polytheist temples into which the victors over Yisrael had carried it in triumph (1 Schmuel 5:1-12). There is also the story of the removal of the Ark under David's direction, from Kiriath-jearim to the approaches of Yerusalem. The way was rugged and the cart which carried the Ark seemed likely to overturn. Uzzah held on to it, in order to protect it from falling. He was struck dead (2 Schmuel 6:6-8). Accounts like this bear the mark of folk-stories in which marvels always play a part. It seems that by such means the narrators tried to emphasize the Ark's sacred character. But this does not in any way imply an idolatrous worship of it.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that the Levites who had charge of the Ark during the countless shiftings of the tribes, were forbidden to approach it until it had been covered by the kohens (Bemidbar 4:5,15,20). They might not touch it: they did their work as carriers with the help of the transverse rods which were kept in place even when the Ark was at rest in the Tabernacle. But this only implied great reverence.
In any case, according to the Decalogue, YAHWEH alone, the one and invisible YAHWEH, must be worshipped: 'You shall have no gods except ME' (Shemoth 20:3). The prayer uttered before the golden mercy-seat that covered the chest was addressed to the invisible ABBA YAHWEH WHO had chosen to visit HIS people by taking HIS place among the Kerubim.
20 Albright, 'What are the Kerubim?' (The Scriptural Archaeologist, Feb 1938). To these data may be added the discoveries in Megiddo and Hamath, and the two cherubs, with a human face, a lion's body and an eagle's wings, at the base of Hiram’s throne in Byblos that this historic object, recalling so much of the glorious past of the Hebrews, should be revered. But it was revered solely as part of the equipment of worship.
Solomon The Magnificent Index Solomon Sitemap Scripture History Through the Ages Solomon The Historian RADIANT DAWN Solomon's Wisdom SOLOMON IN ALL HIS HONOR David's role in building the Temple Dates of the building of the Temple Division of the Temple The Ark of the Covenant The most Kodesh Place Dedication of the Temple SOLOMON Prince of Peace SOLOMON THE TRADER Solomon's Ophir expedition The queen of Sheba LITERARY ACHIEVEMENTS OF SOLOMON First historical works of the Hebrews What did Solomon write THE SHADES OF NIGHT Political and social failure Solomon's spiritual failure The moral failure of Solomon CONCLUSION of Solomon